Click here to read “Ready for a Fresh Start: NY Laundry Workers are Fighting to Clean Up the Industry.”
Doing the laundry. It’s a task many New Yorkers prefer to have someone else handle. That person is often an undocumented immigrant toiling long hours in grueling workplaces. Beatrice Ramirez is one of those launderers. She shared her story with The Indypendent. This account is translated from Spanish and has been edited for length and clarity.
I have worked as a launderer for 10 years. I work at New Giant Laundry Center 38 hours a week and at another laundromat 20 hours a week. I wake up at 5 a.m. in order to make it to the bus stop in time. I wash, dry and fold 500 or 600 pounds of laundry a day. If there is a lull, we wash the machines.
We mostly wash personal laundry. Everyday we launder very dirty clothes. Blood, excrement from diapers. There was a person who arrived with a lot of blood and vomit in their clothes and things I don’t want to remember. I think, am I going to get sick? I would have turned it down but my boss would never. Sometimes there is
a lot of food in the laundry and you can really smell the rotting. Sometimes we add vinegar to help remove stains. The soap is made up of very, very strong chemicals. It hurts my skin and gives me allergies.
And I’m scared of the bacteria in the clothes. My back, my feet hurt, feet that never rest. It used to be that only my feet hurt, but now after having worked the 24-hour shifts, I have pain in my bones, back, neck and head. There is also a bacteria in my stomach.
When the washing machine doesn’t work, you have to know how to turn it off correctly or else you can inhale toxic gas. The machines frequently break but my boss fixes them. There is exposed wiring by the ceiling. Water also falls from the ceiling.
About half of the customers are nice and half are difficult. Sometimes they try to get me to leave the other clients if there is a problem with the machine or get angry if we can’t have their laundry ready in a day. They yell things like, you’re getting paid for this?!Sometimes I get a tip directly, but the boss might yell at us and even the clients and tell them not to tip us.
There is no heat until my boss arrives at 11 a.m. I asked and she doesn’t let us put it on before she arrives, even though we arrive four hours before her. In the winter, I work in a coat and with double pants, otherwise I would freeze. In the summer, it’s hot. There’s a fan; no air conditioning.
Before I sued my employer, I was on the schedule 7 a.m.–7 p.m., seven days a week. But sometimes I would work 24 hours until 7 a.m. the next day. My boss would call towards the end of my shift and tell me I had to stay. You didn’t take breaks. You just had coffee. We were on our feet all day. I would eat quickly, not even for 15 minutes. Eating, watching, eating, taking bites between work. Days off weren’t possible. I went to my daughter’s graduation, and then right after I had to go back to work. She just gave me two hours and I had to go back to work.
When the pandemic came, our bosses didn’t give us masks or gloves. They didn’t put disinfectant on the doors. We had to bring our own disinfectant, masks and gloves. We never received hazard pay.
My boss hated me. It was really heavy. She always was telling me that I was robbing her. I would tell her, Okay, check the cameras. She always had to be accusing me of something, always.
I was making $6.75 an hour with no overtime and no benefits. I am now making $15 an hour, and I am now a member of the LWC. Now, they can’t tell me anything. Before, they gave me lots of shit. Now they can’t. And they give me overtime if I ask for it. After we won the case, I can take a day off if my daughter is sick. I can sit, take a cafe. I have a 30-minute break. I like to take it outside.
— BEATRICE RAMIREZ
Amba Guerguerian contributed to this report.
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